Doing the Saudi Shuffle

I sometimes find myself in situations where the people with me say, “You should write a blog about this.” So, I’m going to write a blog about this:


Purgatory, main room

Purgatory: the corner

Purgatory, the corner

This is not where the story started, but what made it a story at all is where it ended. Which is the case with most stories.

A friend asked me a couple of days ago whether I’d like to join a group going to an Italian cooking class. Are you kidding me? See, when you live in a country full of people from all over the world, “Italian cooking class” means an Italian is going to show you what her mama taught her, not “Do you want to see Chloe make her awesome lasagna?”

In the phrase “a group going to a cooking class,” the invitation gets technical at the “going to” part. Remember, in Saudi Arabia it is illegal for any woman, of any nationality, to drive. No other Islamic country has such a rule (no other country at all, for that matter), and even if it is un-Islamic for a woman to drive, I’m a little unclear about why it should be forbidden for me, a non-Muslim foreign woman, to take my chances with my own infidel ovaries.

Nevertheless, it is the state of things, so our compound provides buses to take ovary-holders to malls and souks and grocery stores according to a published schedule, and has a small fleet of cars and vans you can pay to drive you anywhere else. When deciding whether a trip is worth a $25 taxi fare, one must frequently remind oneself that in the big scheme of things this is still a lot cheaper than owning and maintaining a second car. Don’t apply the fare to the individual outing and decide whether it’s worth it–spread it out over the month and go see a friend if you want to or you’ll go crazy. But if your time has value, the balance sheet does certainly get murky.

On the morning of the class, I and four friends and one adorable baby girl piled into a compound van first thing in the morning and had a lovely, chatty ride across town to the Italian lady’s home. We would be picked up again after cooking and then eating lunch. But no stretching that play date, there, kids! Dad will be back at 1:30.

On arrival, our hosts offered apple cake and amaretti, which are little almond-cookie pieces of heaven. The cake was good, but I was distracted by the amaretti. Made of crushed almonds, egg whites, sugar, and love, these were soft, with a delicate crust, like unfilled macarons (sorry for the low-res phone camera):



The woman who’d brought them had barely been able to pry the recipe out of her own mother, so that one remained a secret. (I’m going to start my experimentation here, and keep modifying til I get close, doggone it.)

If food is the universal language, pizza is certainly the first word. I’m sure there are places in the world without pizza, but they’re probably also without potable water or stable government or human decency, so I’ll stay away. We made crusts of our own to take home and freeze for later, and got to share one our host made for us. It was pure and simple–tomatoes, mozzarella, and basil. In this picture (10 nationalities) we’re enjoying focaccia with a lacy, golden, crisp crust and an airy center, delicately chewy. Home oven, people. It’s possible.

The cooking class clutch

The cooking class clutch

However, we didn’t have much time to enjoy it. A little before 1:00 we got a call from the compound informing us that our driver from the morning “had to go to the police.” We had no idea what that meant. An accident? A violation? Doughnut dropoff? (We learned later that the driver had to spend the night in jail for “beating the red light.” In a car, I presume. I think getting into a fistfight with it would end differently.) A driver had been dispatched, but we’d have to leave in just a few minutes. And he was driving the bus, rather than the taxi van, and had to go straight to the American school to pick up children before taking us all home. Goodie! As if we hadn’t already been infantilized enough, we could look forward to an extra hour on the bus with the rest of the kiddies!

We loaded and stacked our carryout plates, shrugged on our abayas, tucked baby in the buggy, and lumbered off to meet the bus. Oh, and in case you were wondering, summer has hit. When you’re wearing a black Hogwarts robe over your clothes, under the Arabian summer sun at midday, it’s the kind of heat that has actual weight. It presses on you. (It’ll get hotter as summer goes on. And the robes will still be black.)

We retrieved our identity documents at the security office and went out the pedestrian gate to find…no bus. Another phone call, a lot of insistence that we really were by the pedestrian gate, but still no bus. Then I hear my friend say, “You’re at what compound?”


Yeah, those wires got a little crossed. After about ten minutes of standing around on the street, trying to sort out next steps, it was concluded that someone else would have to come get us. From the mother ship. Forty-five minutes away. That’s when the pictures happened:

Purgatory, in grid formation

Purgatory, now in grid formation

A few years ago I had a house painter repeatedly refer to the shade structure over our deck as the “purgalatory.”

  • Pergola: a structure supporting an open roof of girders and cross rafters, plus
  • Purgatory: an intermediate state where souls pay for past sins and wait for judgment, would make…
  • Purgalatory: a shaded place where people wait interminably for the bus that’ll get you outa here.

What a funny word, I thought. Thus my made-up definition for it. But it’s real! The security guards escorted us to a side room, turned on the A/C (which had a lot of catching up to do), and left us to a flurry of phone-calling to make arrangements for kids that would be coming home to empty houses and for appointments that would have to be cancelled. We sat in that ugly room and ate our beautiful tiramisu that would spoil if we left it out in the heat for as long as we’d probably yet be. BabyMama fed the overheated baby. We watched our pizza dough swell and the plastic film over it get tighter and shinier.

Purgalatory. Write it down.

Eventually, the van came. There’s the story. Less than you thought? What makes it a story is the way it happens every day here, thousands of times a day, and nowhere else. That picture of women stuck, not able to get where they wanted or expected, scrambling to accommodate the upset, is the story of modern women in Saudi Arabia. This is the reality of living without independent transportation. And I endure only a fraction of it–compound life is meant to take the sharpest edges off the difficult realities, and does as good a job as anyone probably can. But for the overwhelming majority of women living in private homes or apartments in Saudi Arabia–a country of 30 million people–fully 100% of the total complete entirety of everything is hard.

Every day, countless plans get rearranged as women submit themselves to the availability of drivers. Thousands of hours are lost to waiting. Professionals see gaping holes open up in their days as clients cancel appointments. Employees miss work. Sick children are stuck at school. Business is put off or abandoned. Millions of hard-earned Saudi riyals go to expat drivers who send the money out of Saudi Arabia, home to their families.

Expat life provides opportunities to do things you don’t or can’t at home, little jewels you count as paybacks for leaving family and friends and things you love, for living in a place that can be challenging and exhausting. Understanding that balance is part of understanding what it means to live abroad. The jewels are precious, but tend to be widely spaced. The mundane, far-more-common reality is waiting, and making arrangements, and overcoming bizarre difficulties to do ordinary things. Understanding that is a big part of understanding Saudi Arabia.

An American friend of mine wrote a beautiful post about the reality of living without freedom of movement. She lives in an apartment in the heart of the city, without compound amenities, and provides a vivid picture of what that life is like. My own post from the Women2Drive protest in October is here.

15 thoughts on “Doing the Saudi Shuffle

    • margocatts says:

      I think teaching in a foreign country teaches you more about the culture than about anything else. I have a lot of teacher friends, and I think they’d confirm that it’s an adventure here like no other! Just be careful–there are a lot of shady employment agencies and agreements.


  1. Anne Chabre says:

    Margo, I met you at the memorial service. I’m close to the family. Hope you remember me. Your blog offers the most interesting ideas and observations. Please keep writing! Anne Chabre


  2. Omar Khan says:

    Enjoyed reading this for two reasons: A. I spent my childhood in a compound and have seen my mother and other neighbors go through such routines. B. Your style of writing; it’s entertaining!

    I just moved to Riyadh recently for a job FYI, just in case you were wondering how I came across this!


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